Michael Waltrip is an affable NASCAR retiree and Fox Sports color commentator, much like his older brother, NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip.
And like Darrell, Michael has a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve. That, and Michael’s connection to one of the star-crossed moments in NASCAR history, makes him a somewhat compelling subject for a documentary, “Blink of an Eye.”
That’s how long Waltrip had to celebrate his unlikely victory in the 2001 Daytona 500, breaking an epic 462 starts-zero wins streak that, let’s face it, if not for his magical surname, might have ended his career before he ever got his chance.
The fact that as he crossed the finish line at that 2001 race, just ahead of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that Jr.s dad — Waltrip’s idol and the team owner who finally gave him the chance to drive a winner — was having the wreck that killed him, make Waltrip’s breakthrough victory the most bittersweet moment in NASCAR history.
Dale Earnhardt, #3, died on the track on Feb. 18, running interference, blocking other drivers who might have caught Waltrip, “The Intimidator” being intimidating one last time.
“Blink of an Eye,” directed by a veteran of documentaries about surfing (“The Lost Wave”) and motorsports (“Unchained: The Untold Story of Freestyle Motocross”), focuses on Waltrip, his home movies, his reminiscences, those of his curmudgeonly but proud older brother, and of other motorsports figures (Richard Petty, Richard Childress, etc.) who watched Waltrip’s career and remember that fateful way he finally landed his first win.
Waltrip has a self-effacing candor that engages, remembering his brother dismissing his racing dreams, “lightning rarely strikes twice” — until the kid started winning, right from his first outing in a go-cart — and almost admitting that his name opened a lot of doors for him.
“I showed up as Darrell’s little brother!”
Mentored by Richard Petty, jumped into a NASCAR Winston Cup career where he became a hard-luck driver and something of a self-described punch line — Mr. Third Place — Waltrip’s last great bit of good fortune was befriending the rough and tumble “blue collar” champion Earnhardt, the driver who took over the sport when “The King” (Petty) retired.
“Blink” touches on Earnhardt’s life, and one of the film’s shortcomings is that it doesn’t give us more of that. But that’s another film, you say to yourself. This one is about one day, one season, and three men — one who didn’t survive the year’s opening race. That season provided another memorable moment which longtime NASCAR fans can get teary-eyed about, one that also involved Waltrip and the younger Earnhardt and Daytona.
Oddly, Waltrip is the one who gets choked-up talking about Dale Sr. Dale Jr. has more control of his emotions, which might separate the two as drivers. That makes one wonder if Jr.’s experience of his father was radically different, or if Dad brought on Waltrip to push the kid.
That points to the biggest shortcoming of “Blink of an Eye.” It’s a seriously unchallenging documentary, one that has no contrary voices suggesting why Waltrip never won before Earnhardt took him on (More hard luck? Nobody says so, nobody asks.) and as it lapses into hagiography, the film borders on “NASCAR Sanctioned” and “Official Myth-Burnishing.”
Because the biggest challenge missing from the film is one involving that day, m the series and “the company” itself.
The film sugar-coats, glosses and does not dwell on Earnhardt’s grisly death, and none of its narrow range of interview subjects sits far enough removed from the subject to address any of this.
Journalists? One who cozied up to Earnhardt Sr. and became an employee is the only one here.
This is another subject one can lump into the “That’s another film” category, and give filmmaker Paul Taublieb a pass on that, as well.
Then he sticks a grating closing credit on how “NASCAR redoubled its safety efforts” after Earnhardt’s death, and thus, no driver has died on the track since.
The Intimidator, as loyal a company man/driver as he was, would have almost certainly used a phrase about bovine excrement over that.
The newspaper I used to work for all but predicted Earnhardt’s death in stories about NASCAR’s foot-dragging over the HANS neck-protecting device published a week before that fateful race.
All of NASCAR was shocked at the accident that all but-decapitated Dale Earnhardt. Not reporters, editors and readers of the Orlando Sentinel.
NASCAR’s reaction to those stories and Earnhardt’s death was to strong-arm Florida’s legislature to change laws regarding open public records, so that nobody would know exactly how Earnhardt died, and the NASCAR/France Family empire could escape culpability (HANS was widely used in other racing circuits).
Laws regarding death certificates and the like were bent to shape NASCAR’s ass-covering, using Earnhardt’s widow as their public face for this assault on watchdog journalism and safeguarding the public.
That example just highlights how myopic, “officially sanctioned” and white-washed “Blink of an Eye” is.
Sure, the fans get the myth that they want to believe. That doesn’t mean it’s true, or that it’s good for them, for corporate accountability and for the role of a press in a free society.
This unchallenging “Hollywood” version of that tale is too incomplete to be definitive.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violent death in a car race, the 2001 Daytona 500.
Cast: Michael Waltrip, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Darrell Waltrip
Credits: Written and directed by Paul Taublieb. A 1091 Media release.
Running time: 1:28